"Houston, we've had a problem ..." are the famous words spoken by astronaut Jack Swigert on April 13, 1970, during the Apollo 13 mission to the moon. Apollo 13 circled the moon but never landed. An oxygen tank exploded. The mission was called a "successful failure" because of the lessons NASA learned from rescuing the crew and returning them safely to Earth.
Failure can be part of the design process. When creating new technology or improving on older technology, engineers might use the engineering design process. This process is a set of steps used to help engineers solve a problem or develop a new product.
Failure is not a step in the process but can happen in Step 7, "Build a model or prototype," or in Step 8, "Refine the design."
The inventor Thomas Edison did not consider the times his inventions did not work as failures. He said they were ways to NOT do something.
For every NASA mission, the goal is success. If a vehicle, hardware or system fails, it can cost time, equipment, money or even lives.
Testing, Testing NASA works to prevent failure. One way to prevent failure is by testing the equipment. Before sending humans on a spacecraft, NASA builds replicas of spacecraft called test vehicles. Each system is proven for success. In some cases, vehicles, models of vehicles or parts of vehicles are analyzed in wind tunnels, dropped into water, dropped in a tower, crashed on purpose, shaken on a vibration table, or heated to nearly 3,000 F! Some tests use anthropomorphic test devices, which are better known as crash dummies.
Sims and Analogs NASA missions and equipment are also tested using simulations and analogs. Aircraft and spacecraft are tested with computer simulations. The Asteroid Simulation Mission is an example of a mission simulation. To prepare for future missions to an asteroid, two-person crews spent three days and two nights living in a mock-up of the Space Exploration Vehicle. A mock-up is a full-sized model.
To prepare for missions on other planets, NASA performs analog missions. An analog mission is in a location on Earth that is similar to the environment of the real mission. For example, the Desert Research and Technology Studies, or RATS, team has worked in the Arizona desert. Desert RATS tests technology in a location that may be similar to a dry, dusty planet.
Planning and Practice Hundreds of people help to plan and prepare for a mission. Groups of scientists and managers decide the purpose and plan the details. If the mission involves human explorers, trainers teach the astronauts what to do on the mission. And the astronauts practice. They also learn details about the equipment that they will use. To prepare for spacewalks, when astronauts work outside the International Space Station, they practice under water in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab near Houston, Texas. Mock-ups of space station sections are in the water so astronauts can practice what they will do on the spacewalk. Astronauts participate in survival training and learn what to do in case of an emergency.
Lessons Learned Sometimes systems, technology or equipment fail. Sometimes the unexpected happens. NASA has failure analysts who work to find the cause of the failure. These people are like detectives who search for clues. They use many types of tools and methods to solve the mystery of the failure.
NASA prevents failure by learning from the past. If a mission failure occurs, NASA establishes a mishap board. A mishap is an accident or something that should not have happened. The group of experts on the board analyzes the facts from the failure analysts. The board members find the cause or causes of the failure. Then they suggest ideas for prevention of future incidents.
NASA has a website of lessons learned. These are lessons from previous failures and successes. The site shares information to prevent failure by learning from the past. Scientists, engineers and managers can review these lessons when they are planning a mission or designing technology. The "lessons learned" help NASA know how to succeed and learn what NOT to do. For NASA, failure is not an option.
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